By Drew Smith
In 2010, Marta Walsh was searching online for a family pet when she came across a picture of a four-year-old German wire-haired pointer with a unique black and grey coat.
“She was just a stunning dog,” said Marta, who immediately showed the image to her husband Scott Walsh, a firefighter at IAFF Local 1561 in East Pointe, Michigan. Scott agreed, and they decided it was worth driving to the shelter to see her.
A Department of Natural Resources officer was operating the shelter, and he took them around to the kennel to see the dog. He opened the door and, as Scott and Marta started to kneel down in anticipation of meeting the pointer they had found online, the animal sprinted through the opening, passed their legs and into the 50 acres of field surrounding the building. Scott turned to his wife with a look of shock.
He did not doubt that they could care for a tough dog. He had served as a paramedic for eight years and a firefighter for 14. He knew how to handle a challenge, but they had a toddler at home, which complicated things. Adopting a dog that runs off as soon as it has a chance was more than he could imagine taking on.
Marta, however, saw something special in the dog and convinced Scott to give her a chance. The shelter operator jumped on his ATV and eventually found the dog, and the Walshes took her home. The aptly named Houdini was now part of the family.
Things didn’t change much when Houdini entered the Walsh household. When they let her into the back yard, she immediately jumped the fence. Whether sprinting through or jumping over a barrier, it seemed that running away was going to be a consistent issue. Houdini also had some aggression problems, particularly with men. The Walshes soon discovered that Houdini’s past was troubling, which explained many of her behavioral issues.
The shelter sent the Walshes home with an extensive letter from Houdini’s previous owner. It listed things she enjoyed, such as carrying a rag in her mouth and being outside with people. It said that she liked to hop the fence and surf the counters for food. At the end of the letter, the owner wrote that she hoped Houdini would be happy again.
“If someone put that much effort into writing a letter for Houdini, they clearly loved her,” said Marta.
The Walshes, interested in speaking with the woman, found her number and gave her a call. When she learned that Houdini had been adopted, she sobbed in relief. The woman was terrified that the shelter was going to put the dog down. In fact, when the Walshes adopted Houdini, there was only a week left before she was scheduled to be euthanized.
Financial hardships forced Houdini’s original family out of their home and into an apartment, which did not allow pets. Heartbroken, the woman found a new home nearby for Houdini, but she soon found out the man was abusing her horribly. She took the dog back and brought her to the shelter.
While the Walshes had a newfound understanding of Houdini after speaking with the previous owner, the dog continued to be unmanageable. They referred to her as a “wild child.”
Marta, still convinced there was something special about Houdini, could see that the dog was missing something. “She needs purpose,” she told her husband. “She’s a hunting dog. Let’s see if she can hunt.”
After doing some research on trainers in the area, the Walshes took Houdini to Bill Murdoch, the owner and operator of Colonial Farms in Chelsea, Michigan. When they arrived, Houdini promptly bit the man. Murdoch, however, was not one to give up easily on a dog. He did some training in the field with her and then brought out a pheasant to see how she would react.
“It was instant – boom,” said Scott. “She looked at us in way that indicated someone finally knew what she wanted.”
The Walshes continued to take Houdini to Colonial Farms on weekends to train with Murdoch, and in the interim they completed the “homework” Murdoch assigned. He understood the dog’s past and focused most of the Walshes’ homework on gaining Houdini’s trust.
“Bill really had the patience for her,” said Marta. “He told us exactly what to do – to spoil her, to love her.”
It was not long before Houdini began to come out of her shell.
“She was a totally different dog after she was introduced to hunting,” said Scott. “She calmed down. She wasn’t jumping the fences anymore. She seemed content. It was like her job was found and she was happy now.”
In addition to becoming more well-behaved at home, in about a year’s time Houdini also became quite the bird dog.
During a group hunt, Houdini searched for a downed pheasant. She scanned the whole area where the bird had dropped. Eventually she tracked behind the group, in the opposite direction from which they had shot. Scott started wondering where his dog was going and began calling her to come back. But Houdini kept her nose to the ground – she was determined.
“I’ll be damned if she didn’t find that bird,” said Scott. Houdini had tracked the bird all the way up a hill and brought it right back to the group.”
In 2012, the Walshes appeared on an episode of Brotherhood Outdoors, the television show presented by the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. They led the hosts on a pheasant hunt at Colonial Farms and, once again, Houdini showed off her natural retrieving skills.
The group shot a bird down from over 100 yards away, right on the edge of the wood line. Without problem, Houdini found the pheasant and brought it back.
It didn’t take long for Houdini to become an essential member of the family. Hunting brought out the best in her, and it even transformed the Walshes. When they adopted the dog, they were still a young family – Scott and Marta had been married just three years and their son, Sean, had just turned 2 – so it was still to be determined what activities and traditions would bring them together.
Scott grew up hunting with his cousin, but Marta, a city girl from Poland, had never hunted or fired a shotgun before they adopted Houdini.
“I was petrified,” said Marta about hunting. “But I quickly fell in love with it, with trudging through the mud, going after the birds and watching the dogs work.”
Their son, now 8 years old, is also heavily involved. He has a .410 shotgun, practices at a weekly youth shotgun program and joins his parents on weekend hunts.
Initially unsure they could care for one “wild child” bird dog, the Walshes have now added three new hunting dogs to their family – Hobson, Max and Colton – each a German short-haired pointer.
Hunting has even expanded outside the family. Marta coordinated a women’s hunting weekend, during which she guided a pheasant hunt with Houdini, and Scott has guided hunts for his friends at the fire department. A year after Houdini’s training, the Walshes organized a family and friends hunt the day after Thanksgiving. This hunt is now a tradition four years in the making. They usually take 10 to 15 people to Colonial Farms to hunt, clean the birds and cook chili.
“This dog brought a lot of people together,” said Scott. “We did things we never thought we would do. She changed everything.”
Six years after adopting Houdini, the Walshes’ beloved companion started to slow down. They noticed her back legs were dragging and she was having trouble keeping up on hunts. They took her to a local vet for testing.
Scott received a call soon after while he was grocery shopping. As the vet told him that Houdini had stage four lymphoma, he began to cry, struggling with the thought of losing a dog who had become family.
The Walshes made the most of their last days with Houdini. In the spring they took her on one final hunt to the place where it all started – Colonial Farms – where, for one last time, Scott and Marta witnessed their son shoot pheasants over the dog he grew up with, the dog whose collar now hangs over his bed.
In July, when it became clear that Houdini was suffering, the Walshes took their dog to cross some items off her bucket list. They treated her to ice cream and took her to the local metro park where they let her spend an hour swimming in Lake St. Claire. On the drive home, Houdini stuck her head out the window. Her tongue hung out the side of her mouth and her jowls curled upward as the wind blew beads of water off her black and grey coat that caught Marta’s eye so many years ago.
“She was happy,” said Scott.
The following day, Scott and Marta, both completely distraught, took their beloved Houdini to the vet. Her time with the Walshes had come to an end.
“I have had dogs in the past, but saying goodbye to Houdini crushed me,” said Scott. “It still breaks my heart knowing she is not here. She was my best friend.”
This Thanksgiving will mark the fifth family and friends hunt, which the Walshes have now titled the Houdini Memorial Hunt. Murdoch filled shotgun shells with Houdini’s ashes, and during the hunt, everyone involved is going to take a shell and shoot it over the fields at Colonial Farms, the place where Houdini found her purpose and happiness.
Houdini changed the Walshes lives forever. They are now avid hunters. It is a lifestyle for them.
“Most people can cite one person who has drastically changed their lives,” said Marta. “For our family, it was a dog that changed everything. We all hunt now. Our family comes together around hunting. This is all because of Houdini.”
The Walshes wish more people would give shelter dogs a chance. Although Houdini was already 4-years-old when she was adopted, Marta said, “She was still teachable and manageable. I would like for people to give these older dogs a chance, even if they do not have hunting experience. They can turn into great dogs. It might require a little more work and patience, but it’s totally achievable.”